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A filmmaker is naturally excited to have her first movie released. For Sonia Lowman, though, there are more important considerations.
“Teach Us All” hits Netflix worldwide Monday, accompanied by community-based screenings across the country (in L.A., there’s a free public showing at the California African Museum, 600 State Drive in Exposition Park at 7 p.m.). Presented by Ava DuVernay’s San Fernando Valley-based Array Releasing collective, the documentary takes a deep dive into both the history and sorry current state of school desegregation in America.
The story commences with the landmark moment in 1957 – marking its 60th anniversary this week – when President Eisenhower ordered the military to escort the first nine African American students into Little Rock, AK’s Central High School amid a mob of angry racists. Lowman’s movie then details how not just subsequent decades of white flight, but unintended consequences of well-meant efforts to improve schooling for minority youth, has led to separate and unequal education in many, many parts of the country.
“I was always working with this deadline in mind, the 60th anniversary, so I had to hustle to meet it,” notes Lowman, 33, a veteran of international policy work who put “Teach Us All” together in less than two years under the auspices of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. “I had no filmmaking experience to draw on. I learned a whole lot, it was exhilarating and challenging. But the deadline was sort of a blessing, I had to move quickly and be laser-focused.
“Even though I had never made a film, I’m good at communicating and reaching out to people,” she figures. “I was able to quickly identify who were thought leaders in this space and aggressively chase them down [chuckles] to get interviews. Not really aggressively; a lot of people want to talk about this issue, so a lot of doors opened. I mean, getting a couple of the Little Rock Nine was incredible, and getting some of the big names in education.”
DuVernay, the director of such acclaimed films as “Selma,” the prison system expose doc “13th” and Disney’s upcoming, nine-figure fantasy spectacular “A Wrinkle in Time,” was certainly impressed by Lowman’s effort.
“We don’t pick up a lot of films at Array, maybe four or five a year,” DuVernay notes. “But I really thought this was ’13th’-esque, in a way. They’re both stories about what we take for granted as being the truth, like the 13th Amendment or the fact that schools were desegregated, but there are problems.
“Sonia’s a promising documentarian,” Duvernay adds. “I’m all about expanding the tribe of female filmmakers in all forms. I’m proud to be able to support her work and I hope that she continues. She’s got a really vital voice.”
Lowman didn’t go into the project entirely ignorant of film. Her father, Rob Lowman, has been an entertainment editor and movie/TV reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News and, now, Southern California News Group for decades, and she grew up learning a lot about the medium in their Santa Clarita home. The Valencia High School graduate also enjoyed a fine education at the suburb’s public schools – which is kind of ironic, she realized, while making “Teach Us All.”
“I got a great education, and it was a ways into this project that I realized that I went to a segregated school,” Lowman confesses. “It was an interesting revelation; I’d been approaching it from an academic and then a civil rights standpoint, then I thought, wait a minute, my school was segregated, essentially. There were barely any black students in my huge high school.
“My parents, like so many parents, tried to get us good educations,” she understands. “They moved out to Santa Clarita specifically for the schools and they always told me that growing up, I knew that was why my dad was doing this long commute. I think the crux of the issue is parents who are doing exactly what my parents did, just trying to get the best for their child. They’re not racist, they’re not bad people. It’s just people who can kind of get out . . . and people who can’t, they’re stuck; they’re stuck, largely, with failing, under-resourced schools.”
It’s a dire situation, Lowman admits.
“The movie’s most basic, main point is the continuity with the Little Rock crisis,” she says. “Sixty years later, we haven’t come far enough, our schools are resegregating and it’s still, in my opinion, the most urgent civil rights issue we’re facing. The system we have is essentially disenfranchising millions of students, and setting them up for lifetimes of being marginalized, economically and socially.”
There is hope, however, displayed in efforts to address the disparities in districts both large and small in the movie. There is also a social justice impact campaign that the documentary is just a part of; for information on both, go to www.teachusallfilm.org.
In the meantime, Lowman offers a few handy tips.
“If you’re going to say, ‘Well, what are the solutions to this?’, I see, really, three things,” she says. “One is to elevate the teaching profession and ensure that our most highly qualified teachers are working where they’re most needed, in the most underserved schools. But even the best teachers are not going to succeed without community investment in our schools, so we really have to start looking at our schools through that lens.
“And then, the most important point from my perspective, is student leadership. The whole project has sort of been designed as the passing of the mantle from the Little Rock Nine. They’re in their later years, and we’re at an urgent point in time when the gains that they fought for are eroding and at risk of being lost. So this is sort of a call to action for students, and also an argument that, since students’ lives are the most impacted by educational policies, they should be consulted.”
For her part, Lowman has learned that she likes filmmaking. Even though she studied in Boston and London and worked in Washington and other countries for years – “I was very specific about leaving L.A. because of the industry; I wanted to work on Important Issues,” she says in a younger-self-joshing tone – she’s now ready to pursue cinema.
“I definitely want to make more films,” Lowman says. “I’m certainly always going to have the activist in me, but I love the medium and I loved the process of making the film. I really feel like this is exactly what I want to be doing.”
When the likes of DuVernay and Netflix think you should too – well, yeah! Right?
“I just can’t even comprehend what it means to have it on Netflix,” Lowman reveals. “Who’s going to see it, how they’re going to watch it, what they’re going to think? That’s a very terrifying thing. I mean, it’s exciting, but that’s such an unknown. I have more control over, like, Whoo, community screenings! But Netflix? I’m not psychologically prepared for what that means.”